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Gonorrhea Might Get Harder To Treat And That Is Terrifying

The latest data from the CDC shows emerging resistance to the current treatment method.

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The CDC issued a report today warning that antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is likely going to happen if we don't get our shit together.

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(OK they didn't actually say that, but it was close.)

"Gonorrhea is a really smart bug," Elizabeth Torrone, Ph.D., epidemiologist in the Division of STD Prevention at the CDC, tells BuzzFeed Health.

Gonorrhea has already developed resistance to other antibiotics, like penicillin and tetracycline. Now, there's only one recommended treatment option that's known to be effective.

Gonorrhea is a super common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that's often symptomless.

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There were 350,000 cases reported in 2014 (which is the most recent data from the CDC) and most of those were in people under 25.

But because gonorrhea can present without symptoms, it's estimated that the actual number of cases each year is around 800,000. That's why it's so important to be tested regularly, regardless of how fine your genitals feel.

If left untreated, it can have serious health consequences. For women, that includes pelvic inflammatory disease, scar tissue, chronic pain, and infertility. In men, it can lead to inflammation of the tubes connected to the testicles, which can lead to infertility. It can also increase your risk of HIV infection.

Gonorrhea can be transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex (it's passed through infected secretions or fluids). For that reason, condoms and dental dams are your best line of defense.

Right now, the recommended treatment is a combination of two antibiotics: a shot of ceftriaxone and a prescription for azithromycin.

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But it's possible that some doctors are only prescribing azithromycin, says Torrone, which may be contributing to antibiotic resistance.

Though there are currently no actual cases of drug-resistant gonorrhea infections, the CDC found that a resistance to azithromycin is emerging.

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The CDC has been monitoring resistance to different treatment methods for almost 30 years now, explains Torrone. They do this by taking samples from people who are infected with gonorrhea, growing an isolate of that infection in a lab, and then exposing it to different amounts of antibiotics.

When it takes more antibiotics to stop the growth of the isolate, that shows that resistance is developing.

"The percentage of isolates that had resistance went up from 0.6% in 2013 to 2.5% in 2014," says Torrone.

So basically, that means the gonorrhea is outsmarting azithromycin, which means that after a while it may not be able to clear the infection.

So even though this dual-treatment method works now, we need to take steps to make sure it stays that way.

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That includes the CDC strengthening their surveillance so they can detect resistance ASAP, says Torrone. They'll also be working with pharmaceutical companies to make sure new treatment options are being developed, and working with labs to make sure they have the capacity to keep up with testing needs.

It's also a good reminder to use protection, get tested, and talk to your sex partners about STIs.

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Condoms and dental dams are very effective at preventing the spread of gonorrhea, so if you're not sure of your status or your partner's, wrap it up. Gonorrhea can be totally symptomless, or it can come with symptoms like:

* Painful urination

* Pus-like discharge from the urethra or rectum, or increased vaginal discharge

* Pain or swelling in one testicle, or abdominal/pelvic pain in women

* Vaginal bleeding between periods

If you notice any weird symptoms or think you may have been exposed, ask your doctor about getting tested. The current CDC recommendations include annual gonorrhea screening for all sexually active women under 25 and those who are 25 and older and at risk for STIs (like if you have a new partner or don't know their status) and all men who have sex with men. That said, experts stress that you should really get tested for STIs any time you have a new partner. You should also be tested at any site in which you've had sexual contact (which includes the throat and anus).

If you're diagnosed — don't freak out — gonorrhea is still treatable with the recommended dual-treatment method.

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Just make sure that you and your partner get treated so that you don't get reinfected, says Torrone. And until the infection is cleared, use protection.

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